A French Heart

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Hailed as the French Riviera of the East, Pondicherry, or Puducherry as it is officially known, has a population of about seven lakh and attracts a million tourists—a tenth of them foreigners—every year.

Hailed as the French Riviera of the East, Pondicherry, or Puducherry as it is officially known, has a population of about seven lakh and attracts a million tourists—a tenth of them foreigners—every year. In January, it hosted filmmaker Ang Lee and his crew, who shot a part of the film Life of Pi here. Hardly a decadent holiday destination, there is a restrained romance about Pondicherry, and it stems at least in part from its French heritage. Fifty years have passed since France effectively gave up Pondicherry to the Union of India in a Treaty of Cession ratified on August 16, 1962. Today, people seek out a bygone era in its restored buildings and boulevards, its Indianised coq au vin and bouillabaisse.

"Jawaharlal Nehru, back in his day, wanted the city to be a window to France, but it was only about five years ago that the Pondicherry government realised the French touch was a unique proposition," says Claude Arpi, a French-born writer based in Auroville, a township on the fringes of Pondicherry, for over three decades. Established by philosopher Sri Aurobindo's French disciple Mirra Alfassa, "The Mother", in 1968, Auroville, part of Tamil Nadu's Villupuram district, was envisaged as an idealistic global community of 50,000 residents. Today, 3,000 people from 35 countries live here. Aurobindo himself spent the last 40 years of his life in Pondicherry, where his ashram has since grown in size and influence.

For all its spiritual heritage, however, Pondicherry missed the freedom boat by years. Eight years after India and France entered into an agreement of cession in 1954, the former colony was finally absorbed into India, bundled along with three other unlikely French enclaves — Karaikal, Yanam and Mahe— into the Union Territory of Pudu­cherry. The people of Pondicherry were offered a choice, the last of many choices during the town's intermittent history of French occupation through three centuries: to remain Indian or to become French nationals. Educated in French and lured by the promise of a European lifestyle, many welcomed this offer. A period of flux ensued, where most of the nouveau French moved to France and Indians from adjoining Tamil Nadu migrated to this curiously foreign town with well-developed infrastructure and educational institutions.

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